A Brief History of Modern: Part One [Origin Myths: The Roots of Modernism]

I would never call myself a Modernist; I have been firmly in the Post-Modern camp since the mid-nineties, at least on philosophical grounds. I don’t think the art-world has really hit post-modern yet, except as a passing style, but that is a question for another day. The word Modern has been flying about in the quilting and fabric worlds a lot recently, at times stirring up some controversy and even anger. So, after thinking about it a bit, and after a little prompting, I’m gonna take a crack at that slippery word: Modern. This may take a few weeks, but I really do want to do the job justice.

And just to get it out there, these essays will present my understanding of Modernism as I have come to see it after working as an artist and art professor over the past 20 years; I would never presume to offer a definitive, or exhaustive, explanation of the word Modern. I would love to try, but I think I like sleep too much to try that…


Modern is a really complicated word for me; every part of our lives has been affected by this word in some way, and depending on one’s perspective its origins can be placed almost anywhere. In so many ways Modern will always be an arbitrary designation, but that really does us no good. What we can, perhaps, be sure of is that Modern is always about a response to what came before: the Modern replaces, or at least differentiates itself, from tradition.

The Renaissance is the quintessentially modern period: the advent of the humanist impulse, and the redistribution of land, power, wealth, and knowledge across an emerging middle class were categorical shifts of extraordinary proportions. But, to us, it is now the essentially traditional canon of Western thought and art. The big problem with Modern is that it never lasts; it is doomed to death the moment it arises, and the awareness that the Modern is fleeting may indeed be a fundamentally Modern attribute.

I’d say we live in the late stages, and probably the death throes, of the industrial revolution, our most recent radical transformation. It brought us mechanization, the replacement of human labor by machinery, rapid transportation, communication at a distance, and the unprecedented ability to heal, as well as the ability to kill in ways heretofore unimagined. It altered the entirety of the world; even places untouched directly earned a new designation in the order of humanity: the third world.

And it is with this revolution that I feel we need to start in order to understand the word Modern as it is used today, at least when it comes to Modern Art. Specifically I see photography as the spark that set off Modern Art. (Of course the socialist movements of the 19th century played a major role in pushing at the entrenched powers and aesthetic authorities of the time: see William Morris, John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement.) Photography holds a special place for me in this discussion: with photography, representation was no longer tied to the hand of the artist. This helped to set off Modernism’s re-evaluation of the role of art and the artist, and the emergence of radical abstraction.

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Calotype image by Fox Talbot (1853)

Specifically, I mark the advent of Modern Art at the invention of the calotype process by Fox Talbot in 1840. Unlike previous processes, a calotype could be used to produce multiple prints of the photographic image. A photograph was no longer a singular, rarified object; a moment was repeatable and endlessly reproducible; the world was capturable. As images proliferated, how we saw the world, and what we saw of it, changed. The ordinary became a subject of photography, and before long it became the subject of painting as well.

In fact it didn’t take long for painters to become very interested in photography. If you have ever tried working with a live model, it can be a right pain. Heck, take it from someone who worked as a nude model in undergrad, it ain’t fun for the model either. Starting in the 1860s, the influence of photography becomes evident in Manet’s work. In terms of composition, technique, and subject matter – the everyday that photography represented so well, and that became a consistent theme in Manet’s work – painters began distancing themselves from the tradition of the Academy. Whereas the heroic landscape was the pinnacle of Academy painting, a new generation of painters was increasingly interested in representing the world around them, rather than an idealized past. They wanted to examine the surface and substance of the world rather than use it as a vehicle for traditional allegories. The world, as it was, was more than sufficient as a subject matter: its people and places in all of their ordinariness, its bars and cafes, dancehalls and back gardens, wheat fields and train stations. In so many ways photography was the key to unlocking that world.

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Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) Édouard Manet


In 1863, Manet exhibited his Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) at the first Salon des Refusés in Paris, a painting absolutely scandalous at the time in that it placed the female nude amidst an ordinary, middle-class picnic instead of safely within the confines of classical allegory. It was at once mundane and a direct attack on Academy traditions. The exhibit itself was organized by the French government in response to complaints that the Academy was rejecting an extraordinary number of works (particularly those by painters working outside of the Academy tradition) for exhibition in the official Salon. The 1863 Salon des Refusés made room for a rising avant-garde, one the Academy was essentially invested in excluding. In giving this avant-garde a public venue the Salon des Refusés began to change the face of painting in France.

In 1874, the rising avant-garde had its coming-out party with the mounting of the first Impressionist exhibition. Now much of Impressionist painting seems quaint and pretty (and some of it is), but at the time it was truly revolutionary. With its mundane subject matter and its rejection of continuous blending (Academy painting favored relatively smooth surfaces, gradual blending of colors, and a whole lot of earth tones) the Impressionists presented a new vocabulary for painting.

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Detail from Un bar aux Folies Bergère (1882) Édouard Manet

Following photography, what representational meant began to change. Painting could not compete with the fidelity of photography, but it could do other things. Painting began to be seen fundamentally as an act of applying pigment to a surface, not just as a means to an end. As photography explored what we see, the avant-garde explored how we see. Rather than blending colors, the Impressionists applied brilliant colors side by side, allowing the viewers’ eye to perform the act of blending, an approach that better mirrors how the human eye actually works. Painting began to examine the surface of the canvas at the same time it re-imagined the act of representation, leading some critics to wonder if these painters were “afflicted with some hitherto unknown disease of the eye.”

At the same time the Impressionists were exploding the surface of their paintings, they were also re-examining perspective itself. The rise of photography brought along new understandings of perspective: some fallacies of traditional painterly perspective were revealed, while the nature of early camera lenses also produced some extraordinary forced perspectives. Perhaps the master of these new viewpoints was Gustave Caillebotte. He took up points of view for his compositions that no Academy painter would dare. Meticulously painted, his canvases simultaneously stretched space and compressed it.

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Les Raboteurs de Parquet (1875) Gustave Caillebotte


But, for me, these aesthetic innovations were the lesser part of what made early Modernism radical. The academy simultaneously supported idealism in representation and conservatism in subject matter. Technique was passed down as it had been learned before; painting had been essentially perfected, and it was the job of pupils to master that perfection. Similarly, the subject matter of painting was not the present, but the past: painting was the realm of the heroic and the tragic. Art was separate from and above us. In contrast, for the avant-garde, painting was fundamentally a part of the world, entangled with it. Social issues of the day seeped into paintings and became the subject matter of many works: the exploitation of the poor and of women, the alienation of urban life, and the ordinariness of human desires. Art could show us who we were in all our glorious and hideous humanity, not just what we should be.

I believe this is the essential Modern impulse of Modern Art. Art does not exist separately from the world; it is intrinsically worldly. Just as each moment is built on the back of all previous moments – the Renaissance built upon the Medieval period, even as it rejected aspects of it – the Modern Art impulse recognized its debt to that which came before, but also took hold of the vitality of now. It rejected unreflecting tradition in favor of a new critical discourse in the light of a changing world. To make art could mean to reinvent rather than to reiterate. Modern is always a reinvention, though one that can only last until the next Modern.


Up next | A Brief History of Modern: Part Two [Space, Time, and Color at the Turn of the Century: Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse]

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10 Responses to A Brief History of Modern: Part One [Origin Myths: The Roots of Modernism]

  1. 1
    Dwan says:

    Wonderfully concise and precise – wonderful read – thank you!

  2. 2
    Kristin McKee says:

    Having not a chance to study art, I find this information very interesting. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  3. 3
    Beth says:

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your post. It was such a refreshing read. There are so many opinions about what is modern and what modern, as a term, means. I think because it is used more as a label or a tag line rather than a concept, people struggle when there is cause for a definition. Reading your post will give people more insight into the topic. Can’t wait to read Part 2 :D

  4. 4
    Justine says:

    Wow! That’s a great essay and really thought provoking! I confess to not really knowing much about art history, or indeed history in general so I found this really good to read. My academic background is in the sciences, particularly Human Biology/Medicine (I’m a neonatal intensive care nurse) and only just found my creative mojo early last year! Whilst I’m loving the freedom of expression and fantastic sense of community spirit/friendship that quilting & sewing has given me an essay like this really appeals to the learner in me.Thanks!

  5. 5
    Jean says:

    Thank you! I am so looking forward to reading the next installments. A very intelligent, enlightening and thought-provoking piece of work.

  6. 6
    mommapudding says:

    Can I applaud and shout Bravo? Well, take it as read!

  7. 7
    WandaFish says:

    Thanks for this stimulating and illuminating post :)

  8. 8

    Great post – I like where you’re going …

    I am such a fan of Caillebotte – his work is astounding – nice to see him out there (here/whererever it is we are)

  9. 9

    […] between modern and traditional quilts, etc. If you want to learn a whole lot, start with his post A Brief History of Modern and follow the links to subsequent posts. (But I can’t find the 4th in the […]

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